Bucks took shortcut to contention around Giannis Antetokounmpo and came up short

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo
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Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to their best season in seven years and won Most Improved Player in 2017. He began the following season absolutely dominating.

But Milwaukee started just 4-5.

That type of backslide had become the norm for the Bucks. They hadn’t made the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 14 years. They’d gone even longer since winning a postseason series. Milwaukee had become defined by unsustained moderate success.

The Bucks were determined to break the trend, though. Antetokounmpo was special and deserved a commensurate supporting cast.

Less than a year later, Milwaukee had a championship contender.

That sudden emergence is an incredible success story. It also raised expectations – making this year’s second-round loss to the Heat a bitter disappointment – and creates long-term complications as the Bucks approach Antetokounmpo’s super-max decision.

How did Milwaukee get here?

Adding proven contributors around mainstays Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, who both continued to improve. The Bucks traded for Eric Bledsoe, hired Mike Budenholzer, signed Brook Lopez, traded for George Hill and signed Wesley Matthews to form the rest of the main playoff rotation.

The catch with proven contributors: They cost.

Milwaukee surrendered first-round picks in trading for Bledsoe and Hill. The Bucks got Lopez cheap after a down year, but only because they offered the one-year contract he desired. Lopez rebuilt his stock and cashed in. Hill also got a lucrative contract in re-signing last summer. Bledsoe previously signed a big extension while his value his high.

Matthews got a minimum contract, but only because he’s older without untapped upside. In that regard, he’s not an outlier.

Ages of Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast:

  • Middleton 29
  • Lopez 32
  • Bledsoe 30
  • Matthews 33
  • Hill 34

Milwaukee’s seventh man, Marvin Williams, already retired!

Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast had an average age* of 30.5 this season. Assuming Antetokounmpo wins Most Valuable player, that’d be the fourth-oldest supporting cast for an MVP in NBA history:

*Using a player’s age on Feb. 1, weighted for playing time in the playoffs (or, in the case of 1976 MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose Lakers missed the playoffs, regular season)

This group wasn’t good enough this season, and it’s only getting older.

Does Antetokounmpo really want to commit the next six years of his career to this team?

Antetokounmpo sounds determined to win Milwaukee.

Next year, at least.

His contract is set to expire in 2021. He could sign a five-year super-max extension this offseason, but the economic downturn caused by coronavirus adds uncertainty. Antetokounmpo could wait until 2021 free agency, when the same contract terms will be available to him with the Bucks (and other teams can offer deals).

That’d also buy him more time evaluate this supporting cast.

It should include more players in Antetokounmpo’s age range. But Milwaukee committed so many errors in the ideal window to build around him.

The Bucks were awful Antetokounmpo’s rookie year. That got them the No. 2 pick, which they used on Jabari Parker. Then, they slowly let Parker’s value bottom out. Other subsequent picks – Rashad Vaughn (No. 17 in 2015) and Thon Maker (No. 10 in 2016) – busted.

Milwaukee’s own draft pick will never land near that high again as long as they have Antetokounmpo.

Key trades backfired, too. The Bucks found a team will to deal a coveted future Lakers first-rounder (which became Mikal Bridges) for Brandon Knight and instead opted for Michael Carter-Williams in a three-way trade. Milwaukee dealt a first-rounder (which became OG Anunoby) and a second-rounder (which became Norman Powell) for Greivis Vasquez.

And then there are the contracts.

Between 2015 and 2017, Milwaukee gave out some gnarly deals:

At best, those contracts served as roadblocks. But Milwaukee also surrendered a first-rounder to dump Henson and Dellavedova (and acquire Hill) and another first-rounder to dump Snell.

Every team has misses. Few teams have done as well to recover from theirs as the Bucks.

But those lost opportunities still loom large as the stakes rise.

Even a hit casts a shadow in this high-pressure situation.

Milwaukee drafted Malcolm Brogdon in the 2016 second round. He won Rookie of the Year and steadily developed into a quality starter.

But when it came time to pay him last summer, the Bucks balked. They signed-and-traded him to the Pacers for a future first-round pick.

The decision was understandable. Brogdon was expensive and had worrying health issues. Milwaukee replaced him remarkably well.

Yet, it’s impossible to watch Brogdon flourish in Indiana without wondering whether the Bucks should have kept him. It can’t be lost that letting Brogdon leave helped Milwaukee avoid the luxury tax.

Especially because the Bucks never flipped the Indiana first-round pick for a player this season.

Maybe Brogdon or someone acquired for the pick wouldn’t have put Milwaukee over the top against Miami. But a player would’ve helped. A future draft pick provided no value in that second-round series.

The Bucks will get the pick, No. 24, this year. It’s a key arrow in the quiver as they try to upgrade Antetokounmpo’s older supporting cast. Milwaukee also has Donte DiVincenzo, a 23-year-old who took a major step forward this year and could continue to improve.

Really, it might not take much. The Bucks are already very good, and the heartache of deep-playoff setbacks is a necessary perquisite to a championship. Antetokounmpo himself can play better, and he’s young enough to significantly refine his game.

It’s a tribute to Milwaukee management that the window is open around Antetokounmpo.

But it might not stay open long.

He’ll have to decide whether he wants that to be his problem or one he leaves behind.